Rockaway Beach 2023

I think we all suffer from the January blues. Little happens in January and it feels like a month long hangover. I would happily forgo January and go straight to February. Rockaway Beach is becoming my antidote to the January blues. An expertly curated indoor festival which requires zero effort to navigate, with accommodation a short walk away, on-site bars and restaurants and really friendly staff. Butlins has become my go to destination in January.

This was my first trip back to Rockaway Beach since before lockdown. I was meant to be going in 2022 but caught COVID. It was good to finally be back.

As a side note. All credit to Butlins. They refunded my break with no quibbles. One example of the many things Bultins gets right. How many festivals would have done the same?

With the on-going train strikes, I had to drive to the festival for the first time. I much prefer sitting on a train planning the festival ahead. But the strikes need to happen. Thankfully the sun was shinning and opting for A-roads, the drive took in some nice scenery and was all rather pleasant. I took this as a sign that this was going to be a good festival.

Arriving at Butlins for 1pm. The weather took an immediate turn for the worse. Literally the moment I stepped out of the car it started raining and that was it for pretty much that for the rest of the weekend. This is the first time I never left the site for the whole weekend to go for a coastal walk. Luckily, there was a packed weekend ahead and the site is so compact, you are never more than five minutes away from your accommodation. Butlins at Bognor is a great site for a January festival.

When the lineup was announced, it seemed like there was some bad planning. The first band was playing before Butlins were going to allow us into our accommodation. Thankfully, the rooms were ready at 1pm and this gave me time to unwind before heading to Reds for the first act, Panic Shack.

Panic Attack played the Horn last year and I was a bit frustrated by them. I felt they needed to decide if they want to be an edgy punk band or a fun pop punk band who get their message across less directly, but have a wider appeal. This time I was prepared for their split personality and found their set much more enjoyable. With songs like Jiu Jits You, and Mannequin Man (complete with dance moves), they have the DNA of an incredibly fun pop punk. They clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. They also have a cracker of a song in ‘I don’t Really Like It’ that reminds me of PINS. At the Horn, I found the switch to angsty songs a bit jarring. This time, I went with them. But I think their strength is when they are the fun version of themselves. I spoke to so many who thought Panic Shack were their highlight of the festival. So they are clearly doing something right.

I saw Deep Tan last year. However, they were on the same bill as Deadletter and Priestgate and frankly were forgettable when up against two stellar performances. In 2022 they released their ‘Diamond Horsetail’ EP. Every song comes in at under 3 1/2 minutes. They have a bit of New York art school post-punk about them. They are happy to throw in changes of direction into their songs and musically cover quite a bit of ground in 3 minutes. I do like them on record. But I think their live versions probably could do with loosening up a bit. Some of songs end too abruptly and they caught out the audience on two occasions who didn’t know it was time to clap. I think stretched them out a bit might leave the audience less confused.

I have been wanting to catch Hull’s Low Hummer since they released their very danceable ‘Modern Tricks for Living’ album. I wasn’t disappointing. Switching between male and female vocalists gives them a different dynamic to most bands out there. Think early 80s keyboard driven post-punk, crossed with Seattle 90s grunge guitars and throw in a touch of Alvvays. It all combines for a very listenable sound.

One of my complaints from earlier Rockaway festivals was how I perceived there to be a lack of music. Usually, there are no clashes with 30 minute gaps between bands. I like bouncing between venues on a constant binge of new music. I like an ‘eat as much as you can’ musical buffet of a festival. Rockaway is more of an expertly crafted tasting plater. Whereas at SXSW I see 30 bands a day. At Rockaway, we are talking about seeing 10 bands in a day. Initially, this left me wanting more. But over the years, I have come to see a place for both. Rockaway is a perfect way to ease me into the new year. It is January after all, best leave all that rushing around between venue nonsense for the later in the year when it is warmer.

However, this year, Rockaway had clashes. The Reds stage stayed open and it gave the organisers the opportunity for two alternative headliners in the form of Yard Act and Anna Meredith. I tend not to be too fused by the legacy acts they have as headliners, I think this was a good change as it gives the festival a chance to take a punt on a band who might not actually be ready to headline Centre stage. The only issue from a ‘Down at the Front’ perspective, as I had no photo pass, it meant I would have to accept crap photos once there were clashes as I wouldn’t be at the front (and I’m not going to push my way to the front when people have held their place on a barrier).

Given LIFE were playing the main stage. My initial choice was easy. I love LIFE so there was no chance I was going to miss them. It was the second time they had played Rockaway. The first time, they were the highlight for many and it wasn’t a surprise to see them moved to the big stage.

As usual, they were brilliant, energising the crowd for the evening ahead. It didn’t take Mez long to ride around the crowd on somebody’s shoulders and from that point the band had the crowd in the palm of their hands. I am surprised that the festival organisers haven’t taken a punt on them headlining the Sunday night. They would be a brilliant way to close the festival. Maybe next year?

I decided to stick with the main stage for Billy Nomates. I am not completely convinced by her as a live act. She has an absolutely brilliant voice and despite having an amazing stage presence, it is still her and a laptop. While she managed to move around the stage and fill it with her performance, I still think she would benefit from a band. I really think she would thrive off the dynamics other musicians could bring. I feel like we are being denied her full talent. Saying that. She was still entertaining. But I would love to see her up-close on a smaller stage.

The next hour of so, there really wasn’t much to keep me entertained. The Primitives in Reds didn’t do much for me. Upstairs, Self Esteem were impressing the Rockaway crowd, but are not me. I feel like I’m not in on the joke. Ex-indie musician creates a pop band. Not sure where the punchline is. She is not for me. Downstairs, although not usually my thing, W.H.Lung impressed with their electro pop and the singer had high register vocals that reminded me a bit of Andy Bell.

Self Esteem
Self Esteem

Closing the evening was Peter Hook on Centre Stage and Anna Meredith in Reds. Fair play to the festival organisers for giving us a choice. Peter has headlined Rockaway before and upstairs was very busy. Yes, he has an amazing back catalogue with Joy Division and New Order. But he is still Peter Hook covering Joy Division. He is not Joy Division. Anna though is an amazing talent. Sitting somewhere between classical and dance. She composes pieces that work with her small group of talented musicians, but also scales to a full orchestra sound. For me it was an easy choice and I opted for the brilliant Anna. Her music was a joyful way to finish off their evening.

Day 2 was a strong on paper. Reds was full of great new acts, closing with Yard Act. Headlining the Centre Stage was OMD. So there as a lot to look forward to.

Winter Gardens impressed the midday crowd. Two female vocalists and a manic guitarist. They describe the sound as ‘dream punk’ and it does have the textured layering of shoegaze. But then their manic guitarist adds a layer of expressive guitar that changes the pace and keeps the whole thing interesting.

The next band were the festival highlight for many of us. Personal Trainer from the Netherlands are a seven piece who are all having a blast playing their music live. They come across as a bunch of mates who like mucking about with each other. They just happen to have also released a great album in 2022. I got the feeling they would play just as manically if there was no one there. Their lead singer Willern Smit had an infectious joyous charm. Definitely one to watch.

I had been hearing good things about VLURE. For some reason, I expected them to be an IDLES clone. But they play dark electro-punk with a sweary, ‘twelve pints of Glaswegian angst’ attitude. Highly enjoyable. I can imagine 11pm in a dark club would be the best time to catch them.

The sound engineers at the festival did a good job of getting a reasonable sound out of Butlins venues that were never designed for indie music. They had done a fantastic job earlier in the afternoon of handling the complexities of Personal Trainer. So it was surprising the sound for POZI was poor. Sadly the violin was drowned out in the mix. Given much of POZI’s charm is how they use the violin to replace angular guitars to create an alternative take on the post-punk sound. It was pretty important the mix was right. I think POZI realised things weren’t sounding great but they did their best anyway. Disappointing, but this was the only time were the sound was poor.

Sound improved for The Goa Express, who play jangly indie. As I have seen before, I watched half their set and then took the opportunity to take a break.

Melt Yourself Down were a big surprise. A perfect festival band. Mixing elements of jazz with North African influences, they have a very danceable sound. Lead singer Kushal Gaya does a great job of working the crowd. I think everyone was impressed by them.

At 8, the Centre Stage opened putting Big Joanie up against The Futureheads. I have seen Big Joanie many times so opted to for the Futureheads. Sadly, the performance was marred by lead singer, Barry Hyde suffering from vocal issues and other members of the band had to take up vocal duties. As their vocal harmonies are an important part of their sound, tonight didn’t quite work. After half their set I decided to head up to watch Big Joanie.

Sadly, I had a realisation seeing Big Joanie on the big stage, I don’t think I like them playing big stages. When they came on the scene. They supported everyone and their sound grew on my, but it was their performances that drew me in. Playing small tightly packed stages, with Chardine’s drums front and centre, their performances were very dynamic. Tonight on a big stage. It was clear their performance hasn’t developed for these larger venues. The three seemed isolated from each other and the deficiencies in their sound more obvious as the performance was static. Odd, because they have been a support act on big tours. I would have thought they would have gained more stage craft and realised they have to fill the stage with their performance, not by spreading themselves out. I am not sure I will bother watching them again on a big stage again. I will catch up with them when they play smaller stages.

Managing the clashes, I stayed upstairs to watch half of the Anchoresses set before catching Scalping with the hope of getting a space at the front for Yard Act.

This was the Anchoress’ first gig since before COVID. Before Christmas she put up a crowdfunded to help her purchase some air purifiers. She is clinically vulnerable and the air purifiers have been designed to clean the air around her when she performs to give her the confidence to play again. I still wear masks at the front as I don’t want to be responsible for passing on something to an artist causing them to cancel a tour (and for me to avoid missing more gigs). It was really good to see her back playing again giving us the opportunity to enjoy her beautifully crafted music.

Downstairs Scalping brought industrial rave to Rockaway Beach. Dark grungy guitars played over rave music accompanied by 3D visuals. All combined, it reminded me of the Amiga demo scene. It was all a bit intense for me. I was never a raver but found myself dancing. But after about 30 minutes, it all started to blend into one and also I was a bit knackered!

Taking the opportunity to creep a little bit more centrally after Scalping finished. I was all set for what turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the whole festival.

Bands like IDLES have created a blueprint for being successful. It involves a lot of hard work and nonstop touring. Something that breaks most bands, as they can’t cope with all the negatives touring brings with it. Since seeing Yard Act last January, the band seem to have followed the IDLES playbook and they have said yes to every booking. Looking at Songkick. It says they played well over 100 gigs last year, including North America and European tours. They are about to head off to Australia. That is a lot of gigs, a lot of travelling with the poor lifestyle that comes with it.

Even before their Rockaway set, they travelled down from Leeds via Kingston where they played a gig, before heading to Butlins for a Q&A and headline set. After all that effort, playing a gig at 2315 might not have been the best idea.

I have to admit, I was a bit shocked by their appearance when they walked on stage. James and Ryan looked frazzled. The spark James had last year wasn’t there. Instead his witticism seemed like barbed comments. Was he joking about the late stage time and the fact that they had said yes to playing a January gig? I’m not sure he was. I felt like I was watching somebody who could be heading for a breakdown. I really hope people around him are looking after him.

I found the whole set very uncomfortable. It didn’t help that some pissed girls had pushed their way to the front and talked loudly during the songs. I am not sure if James was aware of them. But he gave one of them the microphone and said they should sing the next song. The girl was then annoyed and told him she was the paying audience. After that, he seemed to lose interest. Instead of playing their 75 minute slot, he decided 45 minutes was enough and that was them them done.

If people around the band are reading this. Give the guys a break. They look like they need it.

With Yard Act finishing early I headed upstairs to catch OMD play their ear worm ‘Enola Gay’. It sounded really good. Maybe I picked the wrong stage?

Steve Lamacq closed the evening with his usual DJ set. But I headed back to my room to edit photos.

The final day started with a break in the rain and clouds. I probably should have taken the opportunity to go for a walk, but I was still editing photos. Sadly it didn’t hold and the rain came back.

First up was one of my favourite artists. John J Presley with his grungy blues. He was a nice late addition to the festival. I suspect he was added as he was playing guitar for the Anchoress.

Pagans SOH played Rockaway in 2019 and impressed back then. It was a no brainer for the organisers to invite them back. Sadly, they still had an early slot. I would like to see them given a later slot so they play to a fuller room. They mix funk, hip hop, rock, well anything really. Kind of like a chilled out Rage Against the Machine. That is not to say they don’t take their music or topics seriously. Marcus, their singer is so personable that is hard not to like him and the band.

Dream Nails appear to have changed their lineup. The time I saw them as a support act, they didn’t stand out. In fairness to them, I had rushed from another gig and only caught the last few songs of their set. But I don’t remember a particularly animated performance. With their new singer, that has changed, jumping into the audience trying to start a mosh pit amongst us oldies. A definite improvement over my memory.

Another new band for me was Rats on Rafts. Hailing from the Netherlands with probably the coolest name of the festival. A clever name that seems to sum up the political situation since the banking crisis. They make an incredibly good sound. Driving post-punk baselines are used to anchor often psychy fuzzy guitars meaning they sound fresh amongst the wash of post-punk bands around at the moment. I will definitely be catching these again.

Sadly, I missed much of Modern Woman’s set. The bits I heard, intrigued me because I couldn’t work out what I was meant to be hearing. The singer has a great voice but one that seemed at odds at times with the music. There were elements of folk scales with the singer’s vocals regularly shifting registers and a violin adding folk accents. Other times the music followed a more traditional post-punk structure. The bit of the set I heard left me intrigued and that is not a bad thing.

Another artist who could easily play the main stage was Hamish Hawk. Effortlessly charming with a dry sense of humour. ‘I think Bognor is the best of the Regis. Sorry Lyme’ is an example of the little nuggets of humour he sprinkles through his set with. It helps that the band play great indie pop music too. I think everyone in Reds had a smile on their face. That is the effect he has on the audience. I think it is impossible to dislike Hamish. Seek him out if you see him on a festival bill.

After Hamish, I wasn’t too fused about the rest of the evening. Figuring it would get busy for the Undertones I dropped off most my camera gear in my room and decided I would dip in and out of the rest of the evening. Most of the evening was legacy bands that I knew I wouldn’t be too bothered about

On returning, Reds was absolutely rammed for the Beats. Upstairs, Fake Turins were pleasant. I decided to leave the Undertones after a few songs. The Undertones music is such youthful music, in my mind, the band are always young, locked in a time capsule. However, I felt the capsule cracking as I watched these old men playing songs that they no longer represented. Closing the evening was Panda Bear and Sonic Boom who played a soundscape of a warm summer on the cold winter evening. It was all pleasant but I decided to take it easy and grab a few beers in the bar.

Overall, the festival did everything I needed it to. It recharged my batteries and killed the early January blues. Musically, I think the festival team did a great job of balancing the legacy acts with new blood. Usually on Sunday, the numbers drop away as people head home for work on Monday. The choice of putting The Undertones and The Beat on Sunday meant this was the busiest Sunday I can remember. Introducing the second stage gives bands the opportunity to headline without the risk to the festival by them on the big stage before they are ready. And yet again, the organisers seem to have found lots of interesting bands to fill up the afternoon slots to connect us to new artists.

One plea to artists who play next year. Be aware the audience is full of older people. A few bands asked the audience to get down on the floor. I think they heard the creaking of all our knees as far away as Brighton. Please save my knees next year.

If the idea of going to Butlins for a festival puts you off. Don’t be. Bultins staff are the friendliest around. The rooms are reasonable and clean. Butlins isn’t too expensive and there’s a range of other things to do. Butlins really do care about making your festival experience a good one. And the Rockaway festival isn’t a standard Butlins music weekender, full of groups of people in fancy dress. This is a music festival for 6Music listeners. What better way to ease yourself into the New Year than listening to new and old music. Despite my initial reservations in 2015, I think I have found my antidote to January Blues. Next year is already booked.